I am not an easy person to pin down. I am several things; yet none of them. I was born in Pakistan but, as many Pakistanis would be eager to point out, I am not Pakistani. I am, however, an eager consumer of Pakistani culture and even retain my original Pakistani accent: it has been responsible for some serious setbacks in my career as a broadcaster, but I am proud of it. I have lived most of my life in Britain; but I am not English. Even though I was educated in England, worked for British institutions, and have voted (Labour) in every election in the past thirty years, I am an outsider; and, if Britain continues in its current trajectory, I will always be an outsider. Having spent seven years studying with a traditionalist Muslim scholars, I am sometimes a traditionalist at heart. I can hold my own with any Mullah worth his salt, but no one will ever credit me with being one. For me tradition is a dynamic and not a static or fossilised outlook. I am, therefore, very uncomfortable in the company of puritans, romantics and those who always look backwards for inspiration. I live in the modern world, use its technology, enjoy some of its cultural products – but I am not a modernist. Indeed, I have spent most of my life arguing against the suffocating and instrumental excesses of modernity. I engage with my postmodernist friends, write about postmodernism, but I am not a postmodernist either. If one were to strip all these layers of ones partial identity, what would be left?
The kernel of my essence is Islam. I am a Muslim. But that statement needs explanation as I am not like most Muslims. I do not see Islam as a set of rituals, a list of dos and donts, a code of rigid, unchanging regulations and laws. For me Islam is not just a religion; it is a worldview based on a matrix of values and concepts. These values provide a framework within which I seek answers to some of the questions that constantly agitate my existence: what does it mean to be fully human, how does one become socially responsible, what is justice and what is the relationship between rights and responsibilities? And this is what I do: I invariably strive in all my futures work for both theoretical and practical answers to these questions. One could look in the past for how these questions have been answered by previous generations of Muslims; one can look towards the present and see how these questions are being (largely) ignored by the Muslim world today; but it is in the future, indeed always in the future, that any answers to these questions have real relevance. This is why time within Islamic cosmology is largely future time: devout Muslims are always preparing for a future life, both here in this world where, as trustees of God, they are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the abode of their terrestrial journey and preserving its good health for future generations, and the Hereafter where a full account of earthly activities is due. I am thus a natural born futurist.
My futures work started with an observation that was also a glaring dichotomy. Given that Islam is perforce a future orientated worldview, why was the future so conspicuously absent from contemporary Islamic discourses? So – single-handedly for almost a decade – I tried to shape a current discourse on Islamic futures. When The Future of Muslim Civilization was first published, way back in 1979, most Muslim scholars found it difficult to comprehend. Part of the difficulty was due to the fact that there was no internal language for discussing the future of Islam: I had to invent my own language. But there was another problem: the inertia associated with thinking about the future. Considering the mountains of problems that the Muslim world faces today, why should we be concerned about the future – this was the most common comment on the book. Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come, first published in 1985, tackled this resistance by showing the shear depth of futures consciousness within Islamic concepts and ideas that most Muslims take for granted. Hence today, we do not only have a thriving debate on Muslim futures, but my early efforts have also generated a host of new discourses: on Islamization of knowledge, Islamic science and, of course, Islamic futures itself. Even the more conservative Muslim institutions, like the Islamic Development Bank, now take Islamic futures seriously.
The main text that has influenced me, and has also provided me with a method of doing what I do, is the life and work of the Muslim scholar, al-Baruni. If I have a hero, it is al-Baruni. Here is a man who could transcend disciplinary boundaries without even the remotest concern for C P Snows two cultures. He could measure the specific gravity of base metals correct to three decimal places or the co-ordinates of famous cities just as accurately while providing one of the best accounts of the Hindu religion and the customs and sciences of India. He could write the text on astronomy for the Middle Ages – Canon of al-Masudi – while studying yoga while writing a mammoth history of the world – the Chronology of Ancient Nations – while taking an active part in philosophical and theological debates of his time while travelling to and meeting people from numerous other cultures. He may have lived in the eleventh century, but medieval al-Baruni is not. What could be more modern, indeed postmodern, then the suggestion that reality cannot be divided into isolated segments, that everything is connected to everything else, that ideas, visions and scholarship shape the future?
Like al-Baruni, I do not believe in disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, disciplines – all disciplines – are artificial social constructions. But al-Baruni has taught me something else too. One must approach the subject of ones study with due respect and humility, he used to say. What that means is that one cannot delve into a discipline without knowing its basics. If you have to undertake an inquiry into an area broadly specified as physics then you have at least to know some rudimentary physics as well as the language of its discourse. This places a serious, but not impossible burden, on the scholar. One has to be educating oneself constantly, studying perpetually – indeed, life itself becomes a process of learning. Every inquiry, al-Baruni said further, begins with appropriate questions and yield answers only through certain methods. For al-Baruni, there is no universal Method that can be applied to all kinds of inquiry: there are methods and an inquiry is fruitful only if correct methods are used. Thus one would not use the same method to measure the distance between two geographical points and to study yoga. Yoga demands its own method of study that is in conformity with its own intellectual space.
Following al-Baruni, I start my futures endeavours with a series of questions. But one cannot ask any old questions. The questions must reflect the nature of inquiry. For example, in the series of articles that I have written for Futures, over the last five years, on postmodernism and non-western cultures, the fundamental question has been: Cui Bono? Who benefits? Who benefits if certain postmodern propositions become accepted axioms for the future? Who benefits if certain postmodern patterns of consumption and technological trends continue into the distant future? The question is asked with an open mind and due respect for the subject of analysis. One then decides what method would best generate a viable answer. I explore a whole array of methods in pursuit of my questions from discursive analysis to scenario building to forecasting to statistical investigation to visioning and backcasting to narrative exploration to policy dissection to comparative analysis before deciding which method would generate the most convincing answers. Of course, one must also be aware of the limits of the method one is using. This is why sometimes, in a single paper, I may use a whole set of different methods to prove a single point.
Al-Baruni was a multiculturalist before multiculturalism was invented. (This guy is too good to be true: not only he wrote some 180 books, most of which have survived, he even had an inkling of relativity!). For me, multiculturalism is all about power. Britain, for example, plays host to many cultures: it has large Indian and Pakistani, Turkish, West Indian, Chinese and Arab communities. The United States has huge Black, Hispanic, Asian, not to mention Native American, communities. But neither Britain nor the USA is a multicultural society. Only when the minorities have access to power, participate fully in the exercise of political power, and enjoy equal economic opportunities, does a society really become multicultural. The only contemporary genuinely multicultural society is Malaysia (although it has too many other problems to make it a ideal model) where the Malays, Chinese and Indian communities share political power and have equal access to economic opportunities. I envision a world where the Malaysian (which is itself based on the ideals of Muslim Spain), or an even better, model of multiculturalism, is in vogue. But political power, like freedom, is never granted: it is always taken. Towards the end of the western millennium (almost all non-western cultures have different calendars ), we are beginning to see political and economic power seeping away from the west and taken by non-western civilizations.
To begin with the future belongs to Asia. Not just because the economic development of south-east Asia has been truly phenomenal and the region is set to wrestle economic power away from the West. But also because there is a moral, intellectual and cultural awakening in Asia, while the west is culturally, morally and intellectually bankrupt. While western writers may congratulate themselves at reaching the end of history or the spread of bourgeois liberal humanism, what we are really witnessing is the end of the west as a source of genuinely new propositions. In the future, we are not going to get any new ideas from the west – all really new ideas of the twenty-first century are going to come from the non-western cultures. And in Asia, there are at least three civilizations – India, China and Islam – that are struggling to rediscover their own ways of knowing, being and doing. Struggling now, but not for long; and when the struggle gives way to maturity there will be an explosion of new ideas, new ways of being human, new ways of gaining knowledge and understanding, new ways of doing things. We are thus heading towards a multi-civilizational world: a world of different civilizations each with as much economic muscle and political prestige as the west and each with its own storehouse of powerful ideas and pragmatic notions.
A multi-civilizational world may or may not lead to a clash of civilizations as Samuel Huntington predicts. It will certainly lead to a genuine appreciation of difference and different ways of demonstrating our humanity. We can thus look forward to a genuine synthesis of cultures. Synthesis, and particularly cultural synthesis, occurs only between equal partners. A stronger culture always subsumes and appropriates a weaker one. This is what the west has been doing over the last four hundred years and through its various mutating worldviews from colonialism to modernity to postmodernism. But in a world where a number of civilizations share global political, economic and cultural space, each true to itself while giving due respect to the others, true synthesis will take place – the kind of synthesis that al-Baruni gained with his encounter with India. It will also enable someone like myself, who has failed so miserably in synthesising a coherent whole from so many different fragmented and partial identities, to bloom and flower.
In the future, I will be easy to pin down. I will be several things, and like al-Baruni, I will be true to all of them!
Source: Originally published in Futures 28 (6-7) 665-668 (1996)